Agriculture has a certain seasonality to it that is comforting. It gives us something to look forward to, an expectation of timing that you can rely upon. There is a rhythm that that is reassuring and usually calming.
We are currently getting to the end of the growing season for potatoes. While out road scouting last weekend you can faintly see the beginning of the end of many of the living potato plants. You can see the slight discoloration, the fading of green into subtle yellows and browns. The plants start to droop and show signs of wilting. This is what some of the old-timers mean when they say the potatoes are starting to “come home”.
Even though it is the end of the growing season, it is a critical time for potato development. The weather the plants are subject to at this stage of their development dictates the size profile, the yield and many other quality parameters of the crop. Cooler days are optimum for tuber bulking. Hotter days can stress plants and shut them down slowing down tuber growth. Alternating cold and heat can create hallow heart and other internal defects. For all of the control we think we have over the crop, Mother Nature still seems to have a huge say in what the final crop will look like and what we have to harvest, store and market to the consumer.
Once the plants are completely done growing, the length of time they are allowed to lay dormant in the field also can have a dramatic effect on the quality of the final product. This is the period of time the tubers need to set their skins. If the potatoes are harvested too close to vine desecration the potatoes will skin and typically turn black or dark brown and possibly contribute to breakdown and rotting issues. It usually takes about three weeks for the skins to set making the potatoes ready for harvest. While this step in the process seems like a down time in the rhythm of production, it is a critical step to insure storability and salability. It is also important to note that this is a time the grower needs to continue to monitor moisture in the field and maintain a schedule of crop protectant to insure the potatoes are not infected by blight even though the growth period of the plant has passed.
What we can depend on from Mother Nature is despite the fact she gives us variations in temperature, humidity and precipitation on seasonal basis, we can bank on the fact there will be a frost sometime between now and the end of October bringing the growing season to an end. Most growers target the first week to ten days of October as the targeted time frame to get the potatoes out of the ground so they don’t freeze, which could create problems for the potatoes in storage.
All of these steps in the process are important and all come in a particular tempo. These are all things the producer can depend on happening at particular times of the year. I don’t think you can necessarily set your watch by these happenings, however, I can tell you that now that we are eating fresh sweet corn out of the fields, we can depend on seeing more and more potato fields that are brown. After that we will start watching Packer games on Sundays, and then we’ll eat some turkey on a cool afternoon in November, followed by a gift exchange in December. After that it will get cold for a while then we’ll start all over again. I think you can see where I’m going with this.